PHP North West 2011 Conference

10 Oct 2011


I’ve just spent a weekend at the PHP North West 2011 Conference.  I went to the London PHP day in February and a couple of people in the bar were enthusing about the North West event, so I decided to give it a go.

Why did I go to the conference?

I usually work from home, and I work on my own and this (while still being wonderful and completely amazing and best way to work ever) does mean that I miss out on the company of other developers.  Working with, and talking to, other people is a great way to learn; people tell you about things, you try new things, you get enthused and excited and you remember why you love your work.   Weblogs and mailing lists and twitter and IRC, although good things in and of themselves, are not quite the same as people.  So I try and fill a hole with local events and the occasional conference.  Sometimes it’s hard work; like a lot of people in this field I’m not the most sociable and gregarious person.

What did I like?

There was a great selection of talks, and making a choice was often difficult.  Choice isn’t always good – I sometimes end up feeling that the talk on the other side of the fence was greener and wondering what I’m missing.   But I saw some wonderful presentations, and all the presentations in the main tracks were videoed so I can check out the talks I missed when the videos go online (in about a month).

Estimation or ‘How To Dig Your Own Grave’ : Rowan Merewood

This was a brilliant talk, I’ve gone through the slides again (just so I could get a better view of the photos Rowan was using) and will be watching the video again when it’s released.  Estimation is something I (we all) find very difficult to get right; one of my first project managers used to take my time estimates and just double each and every one of them – and she was quite right to do so.  I still tend to be wildly optimistic about project time scales – and Rowan had a lot of sensible advice about (i) doing it properly and (ii) convincing customers.

There was also some discussion about appropriate units for measuring user satisfaction – some suggestions were squeaks and cats.  If you used my office cat as a yardstick, it would be one cat for the customer who thought the project might just do, and ten cats for extremely unhappy dissatisfied customer.

Stop Wasting Time By Applying Clean Code Principles : Volker Dusch

There were approximately 793 fascinating slides here and a lot of material, so the presentation was done in fast forward, but yes, I will be reviewing the slides and looking at some of the books Volker recommended.  There is still so much I don’t know.

Anti-CMS Evolved

Michael Nolan (Edge Hill University) talked about building systems to manage different types of data rather than using expensive / complex off-the-shelf systems that don’t do what you want.  This really struck a chord with me – I have encountered some of the same problems with using Content Management Systems (sometimes you just don’t need workflow, version control, roles, audit trails, gold-plated kitchen sink….)  I also really empathised with the issues involved in trying to get university staff to manage and update their own departmental websites – in comparison herding cats is simple and stress-free.  And if anyone ever talks about universities (or public service) being easy street, just smack them around the back of the head with a large codfish.  It’s not easy.

Unconference Track

The Unconference track was a track devoted to lightning talks chosen by the delegates (I think people were canvassed and votes taken in the bar on Friday night)  Each talk was 15 minutes long, with 5 minutes at the end for Q&A.  Fifteen minutes is a great length – it’s long enough for an introduction to a topic, long enough to inspire me, to arouse my interest and then (if I’m interested) I can go and read more.  I don’t always want an hour’s talk on why I should use doctrine or symphony and God save me from speakers who try and write code during a presentation (hint: that’s not a presentation; that’s a tutorial)  And if the lightning talk is dull (e.g. not relevant to my interests) – well, I’m only bored for 15 minutes.  So I loved this; I spent most of Saturday at the unconference track.

There was also cake at the unconference track – very good cake.


There were about 400 delegates at the conference; at a generous estimate about 20 of them were women.  I’m always slightly staggered at the disparity between genders at the techie events – programming has been such a great career for me I really have never understood why more women don’t end up as coders.  Anyway – there’s a support group for women who are overwhelmed by sheer number of grumpy young men in black t-shirts.  Worth investigating further.

Playing nicely with Project Managers

The speaker introduced us all to some arcane PRINCE2 jargon and had a good go at persuading a bunch of sceptics that, yes, project management is a real job, not just meetings and spin.  If nothing else, your Project Manager should protect you from the executives at the top of the project tree (there are some forces with which mere coders are not to meddle).

PDF Generation – livedocx

There are two general approaches to PDF generation – html-to-pdf conversion where your webpage gets made into a pdf file, and a programmatic approach where you have define x and y co-ordinates for each and every block of text. I’ve tried both approaches on different projects and they’re both messy.  The first isn’t always pretty; the second is slow and laborious.

Jonathan Maron gave a quick overview of livedocs which offers a simple abstraction layer and lets you use Microsoft word templates with data pulled from the database to generate PDFs on the fly.  Will investigate further.


By the end of the conference, was becoming a little bit of a joke – the conference organisers are using it to collect feedback on the talks, and it was mentioned often.  Lorna gave an enthusiastic talk on running an open source project, where it started, and some of the highs and lows.  I’ll be registering, using the site for feedback, and having a think about this one.

Developers! Y U NO open source your code?

Another enthusiastic and knowledgeable talk on open-source.  Craig Marvelley from Box UK talked about how his company contributed to open source and all the positive effects it had – better code, better tested code, more visibility for the company, happy developers, the world is generally a better and a brighter place and we should all join in.  And I might just at that.

So what do I do next?

  • People Things
    I’m going to contact a few people from the conference, add some names to my twitter feed, look at phpwomen, and make a bigger effort to get in touch with other webbie people.  I’ve come back from the weekend enthusiastic and buzzed – let’s try and keep it up.
  • Open Source
    Why am I not involved in any open source projects?
  • GIT
    I’m currently use SVN for version control; it’s time to learn about GIT
    I need to register, I need to give lots of lovely feedback.
  • Software
    I’m going to look at openstreetmap, livedocx, twilio